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Meaningness & Terror Management Theory

Jonathan Shockley's picture

I don't know if you're familiar with Terror Management Theory . It has amassed substantial evidence. This is a good paper summarizing 30 years of research

And a video I edited last month presenting an overview with some of the relevant evidence & thoughts at the end.

A little over 4 years ago I e-mailed one of the TMT authors (Jeff Greenberg) and asked him:

"Wouldn't a deeper scientifically valid conceptualization of self as a point of awareness in the midst of power-relationships (atoms, chemicals, genes, memes, ego, emotions etc) aided by meditation and breathing exercises constitute a non-heroic partial escape from death anxiety?"

His answer was:

"Perhaps, but I don't think a scientifically valid conceptualization of self is phenomologically authentic."

This seems to me related to the difficulties in internalizing the notion of "meaningness".

Perhaps a possible definition of meaningness would be a (partial) detachment from self-esteem-generating cultural meaning structures in favor of a stronger reliance on

a) a natural pre-human perception of meaning as an informative subjective feeling state (originally providing adaptive information about the presence of reliable associations in the environment)

b) a partially natural human tendency toward accurate meanings stemming from our greater intelligence.

c) an unnatural scientific conceptualization of self. Since science, or the most "accurate" notions of self at any given historical period vary, the idea here is to realize that total cultural detachment is an illusion, and that one must "chose a devil" at whichever historical period one happens to exist: one must try to exert some rational choice over the options one has, even while knowing that these may entail gross errors (i.e. a huge % of our cultural beliefs throughout history were wrong). I've argued in the past that the ecocidal, unsustainable nature of our industrial society may render us more immoral and irrational than we're really aware of. And so there's a possibility that most of the supposedly more "rational" choices we make within this framework are irrational (e.g. advances that eliminate infant mortality, save lives, increase food production, living standards etc), may come at the expense of countless other species going extinct, and an eventual environmental collapse that shortens humanity's prospects by hundreds of thousands of years.

If TMT is correct, nihilism occurs largely as a result of the erosion of meaning structures that provide us with the strong sense of personal value we need to quell our unconscious death anxiety.

And so activities that relieve anxiety at a deep level (such as meditation or the avoidance of stressful circumstances) together with the provision of human species-appropriate stimulae like nutritious food, exercise and productive interactions, would seem essential to allow one to commence the task of more easily finding meaning or associated contentment in more "modest" environmental associations. Mindfulness does, of course, come to mind.

And so "standing on the edge of a sword" to quote the (Tibetan?) Buddhist expression denoting the "midway" between eternalism and nihilsm, would seem to be a trying endeavor in which one attempts to balance oneself on the edge of a sword that oscillates between eternalism, nihilism, always partially immersed in one or the other, and constantly making one fall "off the sword" in one or the other direction and forcing one to get back on it.

An interesting question would be whether the closer proximity of the sword to the waters of eternalism allow a larger number of people to stand longer on the sword. Buddhism, has after all featured beliefs about reincarnation in most of its forms. That seems to indicate that meditation, monastic life, various precepts etc didn't provide enough meaning to most adherents.

Strong eternalism (literal immortality, cosmic significance) such as that experienced by primitive hunter-gatherers, did allow them to less anxiously live in proximity with the empirical realities of nature (including the pervasive decay and death in it), allowing their intelligence & instincts to continue making fairly accurate assessments of the environment - opening their perception to those more "modest" meanings.

Materialist civilization, and especially our modern era lost direct contact with the empirical reality of nature, but has gone empirically further in narrower directions of investigation. This has allowed for the truth of nihilism to emerge. And while this may allow a minority of individuals to find a more profound "meaningness" - to stand on that sword more firmly; the majority of us will likely fall off & continue our frantic search and consumption of inadequate sources of meaning (symbolic immortality/legacy & earthly importance).

Due to this inadequacy, our civilization, while eternalistic, is closer to the spectrum of nihilism than more religious past societies.

And, to put it metaphorically, a big lie (eternalism) can allow for more truth than a small lie (nihilism).

interesting stuff

jz's picture

i've enjoyed the past hour or so flipping through all of this. i've recently been tinkering with a praxeology/non-aggression principle hybrid called Non-Condescension that uses many of the words you use. i didn't realize it but Non-Con also walks the knife's edge between eternalism and nihilism. Non-Con grants that we each (must) have values at all times to inform our judgments while at the same time limiting our authority to our modest, individual selves who act under unique circumstances which do not, by nature, grant a higher authority (or godliness from which to condescend) over the circumstances of others. Praxeology with a pulse, science with a conscience, something like that. This short post is what kicked it all off.


I'm having a heck of a time with your spam filter and posting a link so if you're interested you can google "obamuh An Ethical Cost Of The Non-Aggression Principle" on blogspot.

keep up the good work, i'm intrigued!

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.